Cyberpunk, Pre-, Classic-, and Post-

Our primary focus this week is on the science fiction subgenre known as cyberpunk. It’s neither quite right to say that cyberpunk “emerged” in the early 1980s or to say that it “died off” or “ended” by the mid-1990s.1 We see many of the elements of cyberpunk – the outsider as protagonist; a near-future setting in a media-saturated world of post-industirial globalization; cybernetic interfaces blending human and machine; virtual reality and networked computer systems2; artificial intelligence; a dense “infodump” prose style; and a postmodernist perspective3 – in James Tiptree Jr.’s 1973 “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and we see its influence firmly imprinted on Charles Stross’s 2001 “Lobsters.”

That said, we might ask what, exactly, is cyberpunk, and why are we reading it? In their introduction to Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel suggest that cyberpunk can be said to have had four “obsessions”:

  • Presenting a global perspective on the future.
  • Engaging with developments in infotech and biotech, especially those invasive technologies that will transform the human body and psyche.
  • Striking a gleefully subversive attitude that challenges traditional values and received wisdom.
  • Cultivating a crammed prose style that takes an often playful stance toward traditional science fiction tropes. (ix)

And, in “Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto” Lawrence Person explains cyberpunk this way:

Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datsphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body. William Gibson’s Neuromancer is, of course, the archetypal cyberpunk work, and this (along with early Gibson short fiction like “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome,” The Artificial Kid, and the odd John Shirley work) is whence the “high tech/low life” cliché about cyberpunk and its imitators came.

The black-leather-and-chrome surface gloss was in large measure what attracted media attention, but isn’t what made cyberpunk the most important science fiction literary movement since the New Wave. Cyberpunk’s lasting impact came not from the milieu’s details, but the method of their deployment, the immersive worldbuilding technique that gave it such a revelatory quality (what John Clute, speaking of Pat Cadigan, called “the burning presence of the future”). Cyberpunk realized that the old SF stricture of “alter only one thing and see what happens” was hopelessly outdated, a doctrine rendered irrelevant by the furious pace of late 20th century technological change. The future isn’t “just one damn thing after another,” it’s every damn thing all at the same time. Cyberpunk not only realized this truth, but embraced it. To paraphrase Chairman Bruce, cyberpunk carried technological extrapolation into the fabric of everyday life.

The best of cyberpunk conveyed huge cognitive loads about the future by depicting (in best “show, don’t tell” fashion) the interaction of its characters with the quotidian minutia of their environment. In the way they interacted with their clothes, their furniture, their decks and spex, cyberpunk characters told you more about the society they lived in than “classic” SF stories did through their interaction with robots and rocketships.

 And that brings us to why we’re looking at cyberpunk this week. The easy answer is that the course’s catalog description states that we’ll consider “works from Blake to Borges to cyberpunk,” and, so, this is us considering cyberpunk. A more serious answer, however, is that if science fiction is the literature of change – of exploring the intersections of science, technology, society, and the human condition – then cyberpunk is the subgenre of science fiction that most directly addressed the electronic and the digital. The original cyberpunk authors – William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, John Shirely, and others – were the first generation of science fiction authors to have grown up with television and to witness humans leaving our planet. While earlier science fiction authors like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula Le Guin imagined space travel and global communications systems, the cyberpunk authors grew up in a world in which these things were true.

While earlier science fiction authors may have imagined global networked computers, the cyberpunk explored – and imagined – what it might mean to be in those networked computers. Our very word “cyberspace” comes from a cyberpunk story, coined by William Gibson, and their vision shapes how we think about our digital world.

And so, this week, we have three examples of the cyberpunk vision, pre- (“The Girl Who Was Plugged In”), classic- (“Burning Chrome”), and post- (“Lobsters”). As you think about them this week, consider not just how they’re similar but also how they’re different. Think about the way they imagined our future and how that’s come to be, how it hasn’t, and how it may still.

  1. See the “Cyberpunk” entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction for a brief account of cyberpunk and its history.
  2. Our very word “cyberspace” was coined by cyberpunk author William Gibson.
  3. Drawing from Brian McHale’s Postmodernist FictionThe Encyclopedia of Science Fiction‘s entry on postmodernism and science fiction offers one way of understanding the difference between modernism and postmodernism: “Brian McHale, in Postmodernist Fiction (1987), sees Postmodernism as defined by its focus, as ontological rather than epistemological. That is, where Modernism focuses upon “knowing” and its limits, including what we know about others and ourselves as subjects, Postmodernism by contrast asks about “being”, the worlds the subject inhabits; it is about objects rather than subjects.”

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